Coming food program cuts will bring hunger, economic pain

This week members of the U.S. Senate and House, including Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, are working to marry two radically different versions of the long-overdue farm bill. The main question is not whether Congress will cut billions of dollars from the food stamps program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but how many billions they will cut. The Senate version would slash $4 billion over the next decade. The House version would slash $40 billion.

It will be another very difficult negotiation on Capitol Hill. The nation’s Farm bill is meant to be renewed with updates every five years. The last version was passed in 2008. Lawmakers in 2012, the post-Tea Party era on the Hill, weren’t up to the task of reaching compromise on the nearly $1 trillion legislation. So the farm bill has, in effect, expired. Its programs covering a vast array of agriculture and nutrition matters, including the food stamps program, crop subsidies and insurance, conservation and agricultural research and training, have stalled in various ways.

This summer, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed its version of the bill but the majority Republican leaders in the House couldn’t wrangle members into agreement. In the end, the House split off the food assistance portion and passed two separate bills instead. It was a radical move and negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the SNAP-less farm bill have only just begun.

[pullquote]”Forty-five million of the $55 million in cuts is coming from households with children. There are 73,000 elderly or disabled people who will be affected. Ten million of the cuts come out of 17,000 SNAP households with veterans in them.”[/pullquote]

“We can’t continue to kick the can down the road or govern from crisis to crisis,” said Bennet Spokesman Philip Clelland at the beginning of the week. “Going into the farm bill conference, Sen. Bennet is going to listen to what everyone has to say. Compromise on all sides will be necessary.”

Clelland emphasized that the Senate’s version passed with bipartisan support. “It saves taxpayer money and it preserves SNAP for those folks who are calling worried about their benefits,” he said.

Meanwhile, a boost to SNAP benefits that passed after the 2009 recession expires on November 1 and families receiving assistance can expect to see a dip in their monthly benefits equivalent to about 16 meals.

“These cuts will impact almost every SNAP participant in the state,” said Kathy White at the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute. “Forty-five million of the $55 million in cuts is coming from households with children. There are 73,000 elderly or disabled people who will be affected. Ten million of the cuts come out of 17,000 SNAP households with veterans in them.”

Hunger Free Colorado reports that calls to their hotline have skyrocketed from 30 to 85 a day. Families are asking how they’ll make ends meet when the automatic cuts kick in this week. The organization released a statement Monday, urging the Congressional conference not to make further cuts to SNAP.

“SNAP is the first line of defense against hunger and the reduced benefits will make it even more challenging for our neighbors to access nutritious food; another barrier to put food on the table,” wrote executive director Kathy Underhill.

If the House bill passed and cut $40 billion from SNAP, more than 50,000 Coloradans would fall off the rolls.

“It would be devastating to families everywhere,” said Michelle Ray, a spokeswoman for Hunger Free Colorado. “The burden is shifting onto charitable organizations … It would definitely create a challenge. Those organizations are already stretched pretty thin.”

White recalls that, when SNAP was digitized, many families were temporarily unable to access benefits.

“We have seen in Colorado from past experience that, when people cannot get SNAP, the demand gets very high and charities buckle under the pressure,” she said, adding that many of those on SNAP don’t have direct access to local pantries or kitchens.

Shannon Coker of Care and Share Colorado said her organization, which provides food for more than 300 shelters, pantries and community kitchens across the state, hasn’t seen an uptick in need, yet. But she knows it’s coming.

“It’s pretty widely known that most of the benefits families receive only last them the first three weeks anyway,” she said. “By that 21st day they’re often in a position of really high need.”

Coker added that the upcoming third week of November will be something of a perfect storm for hungry families in Colorado: Their benefits will drop on the first of the month and possibly run out just in time for Thanksgiving. Coker said Care and Share is preparing for that moment.

She said the larger state economy will feel the effects, too.

“There’s a huge correlation between those cuts to SNAP and families not being able to go to the grocery store themselves. Every $5 in SNAP benefits generates $9 of economic activity. The cuts will impact everyone.”

Hunger Free Colorado estimates that between 2008 and 2012 SNAP funding created some 70,000 jobs in Colorado and brought more than $3 billion in funding to food vendors throughout the state.

“Economists from all sides of political spectrum talk about the benefits of SNAP,” said White. “It works because it plugs people into private chains of commerce right where they are. It’s a way of infusing that economic jolt into communities no matter how small. Limon, Denver, Steamboat, Grand Junction — everywhere in Colorado people are still recovering from the great recession, everywhere’s benefiting from SNAP.”

[Image by Selb B.]